Dec. 29, 2010
Tjeerdsma retires after 17 seasons
By David Boyce
When is it the right time for a highly successful coach to walk away and call it a day?
When he says it is time.
For Northwest Missouri State football coach Mel Tjeerdsma, the time arrived 8:45 a.m. Wednesday morning at the Student Union.
Tjeerdsma wants to spend more time with his grandchildren.
"That's why we are doing this," he said.
Tjeerdsma then started talking about the Bearcat paw and what it means to players, alumni and himself. It was at that point he came close to tears. It was easy to see how much Northwest means to him.
"The paw says it all about what we are about," Tjeerdsma said.
Tjeerdsma thanked a lot of people, his wife, his coaching staff and all the players who made his 17 years at Northwest so special.
"Most of all, I thank God for putting me where I'm at," Tjeerdsma said.
Of course, returning football players wish his time was three or four years down the road. He gave them so many of life's lessons.
"There are so many things," said former Northwest quarterback Joel Osborn, who is now a graduate assistant coach on the team. "His biggest thing is he understands people and knows how to motivate. He takes time to develop a relationship with you no matter if you are the starter or the back up."
Loyal Northwest fans wished the time would never come. How could you blame them?
Whenever something special comes to an end, there is one song that always pops into my mind and makes it OK. It's the title song of the late former Beatle George Harrison's "All Things Must Pass."
Harrison initially started writing this song in the last year of the Beatles. He finished it for his first solo album after the Beatles broke up.
The opening verse:
Sunrise doesn't last all morning
A cloudburst doesn't last all day
Seems my love is up, and has left you with no warning
But it's not always going to be this gray
All things must pass, all things must pass away
No matter how wonderful something is, a time comes when it ends and you must carry on instead of wallowing in sadness.
The press conference was a time of celebration. Northwest president Dr. John Jasinski made that clear.
"Like Dr. Jasinski said, it's a day of appreciation and a day to celebrate the fact we were part of coach T's life for so many years. We were blessed to be touched by him," Osborn said.
Tjeerdsma reached the pinnacle of success at the Division II level. He leaves on his own terms and now he gets to spend time with his children and grandchildren, who are so dear to him.
Very few coaches at the collegiate or professional level get to depart on their terms.
"The cool thing is he's doing all this on his own and you don't see it that often," Northwest defensive coordinator Scott Bostwick said. "It's an awesome ending. You don't see it that often."
Tjeerdsma leaves behind unparallel success at the NCAA Division II level. It has been so wonderful that this season looked like a failure to some because the Bearcats came one game short of reaching an unfathomable sixth straight appearance in the Division II championship game.
All the Bearcats accomplished this year was extend their MIAA winning streak to 46 games, claim a fifth straight undefeated conference title and lose because of one play in the fourth quarter to eventual national champions Minnesota Duluth.
By any other standards, Northwest had a remarkable, unforgettable season, one which most teams in the MIAA only dream about during the hot summer camps in mid August.
For 17 years, the Bearcats and their fans have been living an unbelievable dream.
Even in Tjeerdsma's first season, when Northwest went 0-11, the signs were positive. Tjeerdsma spent that initial year cleaning up the image of the football program.
The people of Maryville noticed.
Winning quickly followed. Northwest won six games in Tjeerdsma's second season and reached the playoffs in his third in 1996.
Two years later, Tjeerdsma guided the Bearcats to a perfect 15-0 season and a national championship.
The Bearcats followed that with a remarkable four-overtime victory in the championship game in 1999.
College football fans at all levels talked about that game for weeks. It was indeed an instant classic and a game I will never forget.
If Tjeerdsma would have accomplished nothing else after 1999, he would have gone down as one of the best ever to coach in the MIAA.
But there was much more left. Northwest won conference titles and still made it to the playoffs.
And then came 2005 when the Bearcats made the playoffs as a six seed. They won four straight road games and made it to the title game and came one play away from winning their third title.
Perhaps the most remarkable achievement by Tjeerdsma was how he got his team up each season after heartbreaking losses in the title game.
Northwest lost four straight championship games before winning in 2009.
It's extremely hard to reach the championship game under the best circumstances, but to find the will after those wrenching losses was amazing.
As great as Tjeerdsma was in getting his teams to win so many games, it's his character and the character he instilled in so many of his players that will leave a lasting imprint on people.
"We talked about his leadership with integrity," Jasinski said. "The beauty of the man is his feet have been on the ground."
Tjeerdsma treats everybody with respect. I never once saw him put himself on a pedestal because he was a highly successful coach.
"John's statement put it right on the button," Bostwick said. "He's so grounded. There is no ego in the man. That's what makes him special and why I hung around him for 17 years."
Truthfully, the Tjeerdsma I interviewed in 1996 was the same as the one I interviewed this season.
The best thing you can say about Mel Tjeerdsma is he is a good family man. His program was successful because he treated it like a family.
Personally, I would love to see him stick around another 5 to 10 years. His teams and players gave many wonderful stories to write. This year was no exception.
At the same time, I'm happy for him. He gets to spend more time fishing, being with his family and enjoying life without the pressure of trying to win one more championship.
For anybody who has been involved in the Northwest football program, I think it is fair to say that our lives are a little richer because of Tjeerdsma.
Savor the memories but move to the next chapter in Northwest football with the same enthusiasm and energy. It's definitely what Tjeerdsma wants. He's a person who preaches live in the present and leave the past behind.
However, no matter what the future brings in Northwest football, Coach T will be missed.
It looks like Missouri Western coach Jerry Partridge got his wish when he talked about what it will take to beat Northwest after a tough playoff loss in November.
"Put him out to pasture," Partridge surmised.
Well, Tjeerdsma is really not out to pasture like an old horse ready for a glue factory.
Tjeerdsma has a lot of living left and he's going to enjoy it with his family. How can you be anything but happy for him? He's moving to the next phase of his life.
"I trust God will continue to guide my life," Tjeerdsma said.
David Boyce spent more than 20 years covering high school and small college athletics at the Kansas City Star newspaper in Missouri. He's covered six of Northwest Missouri State's seven national championship football games and recently served as a guest columnist for the MIAA.
Boyce was named KIAAA Sportswriter of the Year in 1994. He covered boxing at the Star from 1991-2004 including Tommy Morrison and worked both championship fights between Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis. His 1997 exclusive story on Morrison becoming HIV positive was named an Associated Press Sports Editor top 10 feature for papers serving more than 150,000.
Boyce was born in New York City and was raised in Kansas City, Kan. He graduated from the University of Kansas in 1988 with a degree in journalism. He is currently one of three official scorers for the Kansas City Royals and is a contributing writer for the Royals Gameday magazine.
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